Nobody wanted the evening to end as Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine battled in the best one-on-one dunk battle the league had seen in some time. Everyone was ready to proclaim the Dunk Contest was back with these two young, promising high flyers doing things no one had seen before and doing it with ease.
It was on the Air Canada Centre court at All-Star Weekend in 2016 that Gordon seemed to arrive on the national stage. The boundless potential and athleticism expressing itself in its purest, most entertaining form.
Basketball is not a dunk contest, though, no matter how much Gordon tries to make it one in game. There are skills players need to be successful. There are countless stories of super athletic forwards who could never find their position or their footing in the NBA. It is hard to mold these raw prospects into well-rounded NBA players.
That was always the risk when the Magic took Gordon with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. It was something of a surprise, considering the team’s desperate need for a young new point guard. The Magic missed out on the three consensus stars of the draft: Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid. It was a major home-run swing for them. The Magic were banking on Gordon’s athleticism, defensive ability and ability to grow as the youngest player in his class.
Three years into his career, that Slam Dunk Contest is still the highlight of his time in the NBA. Everything else is still a mystery because Gordon has yet to define himself as a player and find his firm footing in the league.
Entering a contract year — he is contract-eligible this summer — Gordon still is a bundle of potential. He has shown flashes of how he can use his athleticism but has lacked the consistency to get there. The 2018 season is where Gordon has to prove what he is. Relying on potential ends now for him. Fortunately for him, it seems he is finally getting the stability and opportunity to take his game to another level.
The reason Gordon’s career to this point has lacked much consistency starts with the Magic’s shuffling through coaches. Gordon has played for four coaches in the last three years. This season will mark the first time in his NBA career he will play for the same coach.
Then there have been the injuries he has battled. Gordon has not had a full summer or training camp healthy in his NBA career. After his rookie year, when players supposedly make their biggest jump and improvement, Gordon followed an incredibly impressive Summer League by breaking his jaw. He missed the rest of the summer and a good chunk of training camp.
Last year, as he prepared to switch positions to small forward (more on that in a bit), Gordon sprained his ankle just before open gyms in September. He missed most of training camp again and still looked like he was gaining his footing as the season began. It is therefore no wonder Gordon’s production consistently seemed to be off. He has averaged 9.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in his career, which are hardly impressive numbers for a player who is the highest remaining draft pick on a team that has been in an interminable five-year rebuild.
Gordon is still probably the player the Magic hope can develop into a star, and he showed some hints of doing so. But a lot of his issues could be attributed to the position switch the Magic sprung on their young, malleable forward. The team’s decision to acquire Serge Ibaka and sign Bismack Biyombo moved Gordon to small forward. He was game for the change, willing to go along with whatever his coaches wanted, but it was clear he did not fit.
For one, Gordon is a poor 3-point shooter. Streaky at his best, but mostly not consistent. He shot worse than 30 percent from beyond the arc last year on a career-high 267 attempts. Without the ability to space the floor, Gordon would need to rely on his ability off the dribble to get to the basket.
Gordon did not really have that either. He scored just 0.75 points per possession as the ball handler on pick and rolls, according to NBA.com, a play he ran 1.5 times per game. As a spot-up shooter, he scored only 0.79 points per possession on 2.9 possessions per game, posting a 40.0 percent effective field goal percentage. Even on post-ups, where he supposedly could use his size as an advantage, Gordon struggled. He scored just 0.79 points per possession on 1.0 possessions per game.
The raw numbers did Gordon no favors. Before the All-Star Break (essentially when the Magic gave in and traded Serge Ibaka), Gordon averaged 11.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He increased his scoring and looking more comfortable. And indeed, he had some moments where it looked like this experiment at small forward would work. He dropped 30-plus points against the undersized Clippers and proved he could get hot and hold his own.
But largely, the stats did not lie. He struggled to break players down off the dribble and his poor shooting hurt everyone else. About the only thing he did well at small forward was defend players on the perimeter — and even those numbers were a bit dubious for a Magic team that was terrible defensively overall.
The script completely changed when he moved back to power forward, the position that plays to his strengths. His athleticism was more pronounced against bigger players and his production followed suit. After the All-Star Break, he averaged 16.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. For a 21-year-old, those are the kind of numbers that make a team think they may have a budding star.
At power forward, Gordon worked closer to the basket more in his comfort zone. Surprisingly, Gordon was strong in isolation: 1.15 points per possession and a 52.5 percent effective field goal percentage. Here, especially, he looked more sure of himself. He was not dribbling aimlessly or trying to do too much. He turned and faced his opponent, offered a quick jab step and got comfortably into his shot in rhythm.
With the Magic quickening the pace without two bigs on the floor, Gordon also thrived. His dunks, which everyone noted were down in the first half of the season, increased dramatically. He scored 1.03 points per possession in transition and was making highlights every game again.
In the half court, the extra space from having Terrence Ross on the floor as another shooter allowed Gordon the room to work off the ball. He scored 1.75 points per possession on cuts. This is where Gordon was his most effective, cutting behind a defense or curling into open space for a dunk. Playing closer to the basket, it seems, helped Gordon shine.
It is hard to see from looking at these raw numbers or a small 24-game sample size what Gordon is. And that is exactly the problem with the young player and this year specifically. The Magic are finally providing him with some coaching stability. Frank Vogel is back, although the team fired general manager Rob Hennigan and hired a new management group led by Jeff Weltman. That management change would suggest everyone on the roster has some degree of uncertainty. A contract year would do that as well.
And so far, it seems Gordon has remained healthy. He finally has the chance to put all the work he has done in the offseason to use from the start. No rounding into form or getting his conditioning back while everyone else races ahead. This is his time to shine. It has to be. That next contract looms large over this entire season, and no one is any closer to figuring out exactly where Gordon’s ceiling is.
There is at least an outline to what Gordon can be and how he can be best effective in the league. The way he finished last season was something at least. But time is running out for him and the Magic to figure it all out. Another season where he looks middling on offense or unsure of where he fits on the court, and all of a sudden his ceiling starts to look a lot lower.